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So long, Sloanes

The upper-middle-class Rangers who epitomised the Eighties have ridden off into the Wiltshire sunset

Thanks to Krakatoa, 1816 went down as the year without a summer. And now, for those who were planning to mark time in England at the Badminton Horse Trials, Henley, Wimbledon, Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood, 2020 will be written off as the summer without a Season. Only the Cheltenham Festival went ahead. In doing so, it may have helped speed the spread of the virus that put paid to everything else.

There is, therefore, a summer of lost sport to mourn. But the Season was also about the spectators as well as the participants. From grandstand to stewards’ enclosure, it provided vantages for the English upper-middle class to congregate and self-congratulate. To those we once called Sloane Rangers, the Season was as core to What Really Matters as supper parties and skiing trips.

“Once called”, because who still calls them Sloanes? There was a time when almost everyone was either in on the joke or indifferent to the fact that they were part of it. First published in 1982, The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook by Ann Barr and Peter York was the best-selling trade book of its decade. A significant social influence or lucrative work of whimsy, it notched sales of over a million and thereby raised the question: just how many wannabee Sloane Rangers could there have been in Thatcher’s Britain? And where have they gone?

Sloane etiquette had not advanced greatly from the “U and non-U” popularised (but not invented) by Nancy Mitford in 1954. Yet, in coining a punning name and portraying a lifestyle that, whilst requiring dosh, did not depend singularly upon the possession of serious money, the journalists at Harpers & Queen instigated a typically English regeneration. They revealed the code of an elite in a way that made its members seem unthreatening and almost accessible.

It was Ann Barr, the features editor at Harpers & Queen, who set the scene. In 1975 she commissioned a sharp observer of trends, Peter York, to write an article primarily about girls from comfortable backgrounds working as secretaries, nannies, cooks and gallery and auction house assistants in London. As York summarises it, “Their London jobs were just a fleeting fiction because their real destination was to return to the countryside where their hearts were. London was temporary, like a colonial posting.”

The article was noticed by those inhabiting the small world it sketched. From January 1976 onwards small ads in the “situations vacant” columns of The Times began appearing soliciting “Sloane Rangers” to cook, type or flat-share in Fulham, Chelsea, and Mayfair. But whereas Peter York brought amused distance in describing them — and saw their commercial potential — Ann Barr was both definer and defender. Her features assistant at Harpers & Queen, Sue Carpenter, felt that “Ann was adamant that they were upper-middle class, but not the aristocracy. They were the salt of the earth, just under the ruling classes, that made everything tick. She knew a lot of it innately herself.” Peter York concurs: “It was fine to be funny about Sloanes, but Ann was adamant that at heart they were good folk.”

This early identification of a minor counter-culture in the Britain of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan might have soon been forgotten but for two interventions. Originally, they were going to be called “The Knightsbridge Knotted” (because of how they tied their headscarves). It was a Harpers & Queen sub-editor, Tina Margetts, who came up with the far more memorable (and helpfully unisex), Sloane Ranger. But even so, it was not until seven years later, in 1982, that the expression took off.

It did so because in that year Harpers & Queen launched its own publishing imprint for which the magazine’s publisher, Stephen Quinn, wanted to spin off content from the magazine. The old Sloane Ranger article was resuscitated. “We had to work very quickly,” recalls York. “I knew it would be huge because I felt we were answering the zeitgeist.”

Indeed, the timing was perfect. The previous year, Granada Television’s 11-part adaptation of Brideshead Revisited charmed a vast viewership into the aristocratic cultural embrace and Lady Diana Spencer married the heir to the throne. Before she slipped her moorings to become an international celebrity, Lady Di — doing her bit at the Young England kindergarten in Pimlico — was the pin-up Sloane. Her photo was the centrepiece of The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook’s cover.

Of the handbook’s two authors, Ann Barr was delighted with its success, feeling essentially decent people were receiving their due acknowledgement. Peter York felt that the book’s sales, which were in multiples of the number of genuine Sloanes in the country, demonstrated that it was showcasing a lifestyle that could be adopted as well as inherited. “There’s partly the social-determinism of being born a Sloane and partly the choice of wanting to be a Sloane,” he maintains still. Back in the Eighties, it helped “new money pursue old style”.

The Official Sloane Ranger Diary followed, allowing polished and apprentice Sloanes to pace themselves throughout the year. The Cambridge academic Lord Runciman wrote about the Sloane phenomenon as the cover story in the London Review of Books, explaining that “Sloanes are not, in the technical sense, a class at all. They are a classic example of a stand, or ‘status-group,’ as defined by Max Weber himself — that is, an amorphous but exclusive community distinguished by a common lifestyle whose characteristic features are both positively evaluated and strictly ritualised.”

Those distinguishing marks were adoringly mocked far beyond the LRB’s sphere of influence. The affirmation “ok yah!” became a popular catchphrase. Theatregoers in the West End were treated to Ned Sherrin’s The Sloane Ranger Review. Less successfully, there was even a parody pop song, “All Stuck Up”, by Hooray and the Henrys.

For Simon Cave, entry into the Sloaniverse came not during his years at public school but with a bang on the opening morning of his first job at Knight Frank & Rutley. It was the mid-1980s and at the front desk in the estate agent’s office in Hanover Square, “There was a receptionist who was Sloanette incarnate. She wore the uniform: stripy-shirt with stand-up collar and pearls. Very clipped, incredibly attractive. Absolutely inaccessible to me.”

Enchanted, Cave (right) rapidly updated his wardrobe for weekend point-topoints. “I bought all the kit I thought you had to have, like gumboots and the puffa padded jacket, which looked like the lagging around my boiler.” The look was not everything — “you’d be quickly found out if you pretended you had a keen interest in country pursuits and you didn’t” — but there was a fashion hand-me-down heritage that was widely honoured. “The mothers were the most Sloaney,” Cave noticed. “Their style was not, I think, a look they acquired in the 1970s or early ’80s, but pretty close to what they’d worn in the early 1960s.

The daughters brought to London what their mothers wore in the country.” Back in London, drinks and supper parties occupied the Sloanes’ after-work recreation. “Everyone was smoking not just between courses but during them,” Cave remembers. “And they smoked in a particular way, with the cigarette cocked at a 45-degree angle, as if it was still the 1920s.”

A small number of London pubs — the Admiral Codrington (the Cod), The Australian and The White Horse (Sloaney Pony) — were also primary congregation points. One evening Cave was in the Cod when “this young Sloaney woman came in to the pub wearing a ski outfit and carrying skis. But with no luggage. So she hadn’t just come from the airport. What was she doing in the Cod like this? But she somehow fitted in. A girl in a pub carrying skis — why not?”

But Cave also began to tire of the incuriosity he encountered. “You’d get the invitation to her parents’ house in the country. If you tried to have a deeper conversation, the conversation would stop. Silence. So I asked someone later on, ‘Why don’t they talk about anything deeply?’ And it was explained to me that it’s just not done to discuss anything deeply. Anything intellectual.”

When in 2007, Peter York reprised the theme in Cooler, Faster, More Expensive: The Return of the Sloane Ranger, in a book co-written with Olivia Stewart-Liberty, it was to find much of the audience had moved on. “We did it at the wrong time,” he now says. “We should have done it at the Cameron moment and put him on the cover along with other Sloane faces.”

But not only had the audience moved on, true Sloanes had moved out. They had been named after a part of London that only a fraction of them could still afford to live near. The stars of the “structured reality” television show, Made in Chelsea, launched in 2011, were of a flashier hue than the generation immortalised by Ann Barr.

Priced out of Mayfair and Knightsbridge by plutocrats and foreign tax exiles, Sloanes, as York sees it, “don’t count in the centre of London. If you’re a Sloane who happens to run a hedge fund then you have power by virtue of that. But you don’t have social coercion by your upbringing unless you have money as well.” Most of the Sloane women that Sue Carpenter knew in the early 1980s had not gone to university and seemed content to spend a few years engaged in some of London’s less intellectually demanding roles before settling down in the country. But public schools have become more exam-focused and their pupils — female as much as male — much more likely to become graduates with wider career options and social contacts.

Yet Carpenter thinks the tribe, if not the brand, endures. “I think they do still exist. Not many of them remain in south London but in pockets of Wiltshire and Gloucestershire there are still people living the Sloane life. Their kids go to lovely little prep schools, and they ride, they ski, and they live in their bubble.” As a provincial phenomenon, of course, they are no longer of interest to the metropolis’s style-definers.

Could a further update of The Sloane Ranger Handbook be written nevertheless? “You might do it by playing on the persistence of a real Britishness beyond the gaze of medialand, a celebration of a British wisdom that has resisted the ongoing march of global homogenisation,” thinks York. “But it would be fake. It would be a Mrs Miniver — a kindly-meant fiction to bring Americans into the war.”

As for the original masterpiece, what became of it? Ann Barr died in 2015, having made Sue Carpenter an executor of her “Sloane Ranger estate”. “We were all wondering where the original manuscript went,” says Carpenter. Back in 1982, Barr had amassed the work of multiple contributors who had sent in snippets and photographs. From her home, she had typed up the final edit onto thin, quarto, pages. “I went to her flat but couldn’t find the original manuscripts. Then we opened a trunk. Ann had a parrot called Turkey. There was just a shredded load of papers and we found little fragments.” So that’s where the Sloanes ended up — shredded by Turkey the parrot.

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